Magical Symbolism - The Alphabet of Magic - The Foundations of Druid Magic

The Druid Magic Handbook: Ritual Magic Rooted in the Living Earth - John Michael Greer 2008

Magical Symbolism
The Alphabet of Magic
The Foundations of Druid Magic

Powerful as it is, this process can be worked very simply. The art of creative visualization, one of the most common practices in today's alternative spirituality scene, is a good example. To practice creative visualization, you simply imagine a situation that you want to bring into your life and make the mental image as rich, detailed, and precise as you can. As you hold the image in your awareness, focus on the idea that by visualizing it, you are bringing that situation into reality. Much more often than not, people who put this method to work find that the desired situation occurs in their lives, often copying their visualization in precise detail.

Many traditional occult schools teach creative visualization to beginning students as a good introduction to the way magic works. In a society that dismisses magic as so much fraud and delusion, the chance to experience it as a living and powerful reality is an important step in magical training, and creative visualization provides that. As a practical technique, though, it suffers from major limitations: most of the time, it takes a great deal of work with the technique to get results from it, and the more emotional investment you have in the situation, the less likely you are to get any results at all.

These limitations unfold from the principle of intentionality. As explained earlier, the intentionality you choose shapes your experience by setting patterns of nwyfre into motion. The more intensely you can concentrate on your intentionality, the stronger the effect will be. It's easier to concentrate on a simple image than a complex set of ideas. In creative visualization, however, a mental picture simple enough to allow intense concentration will usually be too simple to express your intention clearly, and one detailed enough to formulate your intention will usually be too complex to allow intense focus.

Emotional investment amplifies this effect. Most people who try creative visualization to improve their health, say, are motivated by desire and fear—they crave health or fear sickness, or both. Few people have the mental discipline to visualize a scene that touches on desires or fears without stirring up those emotions, and the attention that goes into desiring health or fearing sickness is diverted from the magical work at hand. Worse, since desire and fear both focus on not being healthy—the desire fixates on what you would do if your health improves, the fear on what might happen if it does not—you risk setting up an intentionality of wanting to be healthy, rather than one of being healthy, and ending up with the opposite of the effect you want.

The solution to these problems is as old as magic itself. Instead of concentrating on a mental picture of the situation you want to create, you concentrate on an abstract symbol that represents that situation without actually portraying it. You start by stating aloud what you want to bring into being, and then release the words and concentrate entirely on the symbol. Since magical symbols are visually simple, concentrating on them is easier, and since they have no obvious connection to the goal of the work, most novice mages find it much easier to keep unwanted emotions and wandering thoughts from intruding and weakening the process.

Some modern magical systems like to create a unique symbolism for each working. This can work well enough, but most mages find that symbols used repeatedly get stronger results than symbols made up for individual workings. The traditional explanation for this experience is that symbols develop something like momentum in the way they affect nwyfre. The more often a symbol is projected into nwyfre, in other words, the more quickly and powerfully nwyfre responds to it.

This way of thinking about symbols helps avoid two less useful attitudes toward them that are common nowadays. Some people dismiss symbols as a hodgepodge of arbitrary images connected in arbitrary ways. Others go to the opposite extreme and decide that some particular set of symbols express hard and fast truths about the universe—that the element of water is associated with the west and the color blue, let's say, as a matter of objective fact. Neither of these viewpoints fit the way symbols actually function in magic. Traditional symbols and symbolic relationships work well when put to the only test that counts—the test of actual practice—but different systems disagree on how symbols relate to one another. In Chinese Taoist magic, for example, the element of water is associated with the North and the color black, rather than West and blue, but Taoist mages get results just as effectively as Druid mages do.

The key to understanding this is the recognition that all symbols draw their meaning from their context in a whole system. The relationship between west and water, to continue the example, comes out of a particular way of thinking about elements, directions, and much else. To say that the west corresponds to water is to say that within a particular system the west, among the directions, means many of the same things that water means among the elements.

Another way to say the same thing is to suggest that the logic of magical symbolism is closely related to the logic of poetry. In a well-written poem, each turn of phrase and choice of imagery takes its meaning from its context. When the Scottish poet Robert Burns began a poem with the line “My love is like a red, red rose,” he didn't mean to suggest that the woman he loved had thorns, or was green from the hairline down, or resembled a rose in any of a hundred other ways. He meant that she was beautiful; more than that, he meant to remind the reader of the way the brilliant red of a rose against the drab greens and browns of the rosebush catches and holds the eye, and used this as an image of the intensity of a lover's gaze focusing on the one he loves. The context of the poem gives the correspondence between woman and rose its meaning.

Some poems use only stock images and phrases that already have a rich context of meaning. Others use images and phrases nobody else has used before. Very often, though, the best poetry combines the familiar and the new in creative ways. Magical symbolism most often works the same way as this third type. There's a good deal of common ground among different systems, but if you compare magical handbooks from the Middle Ages, say, you'll discover that no two of them use exactly the same symbolism. Since no two of the old grimoires work magic in the same way, or for the same purposes, this sort of diversity is unavoidable.

To return to the metaphor of poetry, if your love isn't like a red, red rose, but looks like some other flower, then by all means use the words that work for you. As you go through this book, in other words, feel free to experiment with symbols other than the ones I provide. The disadvantage of using a symbolism that does not work for you can easily outweigh the advantage of momentum from using a symbol other people also use. Magic is a creative art, and the personal factor needs to be included in any working.